by Sergio Brinkhuis
previewed on PC
Of walls and towers
Stronghold Crusader 2 will be Firefly’s first self-published full game. Riding on the success of their Free to Play MMO Stronghold Kingdoms, the studio is finally free to create a new Stronghold game based entirely on their own ideas and wish list without the involvement (read: meddling) of a publisher. If the Gamescom presentation is anything to go on, the studios’ newfound freedom is being put to good use.
While all Stronghold games are about building castles, the original Crusader had a stronger focus on skirmish than it had on building economy. Stronghold Crusader 2 continues to embrace this more aggressive, faster paced play style and expands on it where it can. That said, we are looking at an evolution rather than a revolution and Firefly are even taking a few steps back from some of the elements that were introduced in Stronghold 3 but simply did not work.
One such element is castle building. Building castles in a 3D engine just did not work all that well. Sections would not connect properly and seamlessly integrating walls and towers into natural defenses was a nightmare. Crusader 2 reintroduces a 2D style of building walls and towers in a greatly upgraded version of the 3D engine that powered Stronghold 3. It allows players to simply drag new wall sections in 8 different directions and straight into adjacent rock formations, effectively sealing off access by enemy troops. Dragging walls and adding towers can be done at great speed, only requiring seconds of your attention so that you can quickly zoom in again on battles or other aspects of the game that can’t be left alone for very long.
Throughout the ages, dessert warfare has always revolved around gaining control over arable land and this is something that Crusader 2 really brings to the fore. Feeding your population is of the utmost importance but most maps have only few places that support farms. Naturally, these become staging areas for many a battle, whether it is to disrupt enemy food supplies or to actually take control.
With similar fights erupting over wood, stone and iron resources, you’re going to need an army to defend those supplies. Some fan-favorite units like the Assassin make a return. Hidden from most enemy units until right up close to them, Assassins are great units to send to secure access to an enemy gate. Knights have a new rushing ability that gives them a bonus charging into enemy units at great speed. On top of these, many creative new units fill up the roster. The Wall Wagon protects archers tasked with taking out enemy archers manning castle walls, the Whirling Dervish runs straight into enemy infantry, slashing and swinging his sword around to devastating effect and a Slaver whips a troop of fire-bombing slaves into combat to heat up the action. As long as those slaves are in range of the whip, they receive a bonus to their hitpoints.
Up to 8 players can take part in the multiplayer skirmishes but you are not necessarily attacking each and every one of them. Co-op play will also be available, allowing players to work together playing a single faction, divvying up the tasks of defending and building as they see fit.
I am sure many Stronghold fans will be looking forward to playing Crusader 2 online against their friends, but the game has plenty to offer strategists that prefer offline play as well. The campaign, referred to by Firefly as a “skirmish trail” offers a variety of mission based skirmish maps where you will be battling AI players that will take the seat otherwise occupied by human players. Each of the AI players has their own unique personality ranging from warlike to friendly and treacherous. So while the Caliph may make little secret out of wanting to destroy you, the Shah could well seek trade and cooperation instead of strife. While the actual depth of the diplomatic options is still unknown, I have a feeling the Shah may be a useful ally when locusts eat your crops or a tornado destroys your weapons manufacturing district.
It is no secret that Stronghold 3 put a blemish on Firefly Studios’ reputation, but having seen Stronghold Crusader 2 in action, there is no doubt in my mind that their reputation will be restored to its former heights. Stronghold Crusader 2 innovates where it can, changes where it must and expands on the original Crusader formula wherever possible. In short, it does everything right, and then some.